Since its release last October, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city has been universally praised as not just a transcendent hip hop album — but lauded as one of the better pieces of art to come out this side of 2000. As much as I love Kendrick, as brilliant and important as his work is, I still feel weird about his compulsive use of the word “bitch”. This creeping uneasiness came to a head a few weeks back at Kendrick’s outdoor concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I encountered the bizarre experience of waving my arms in unison with 6,000 other Kendrick fans, as everyone called each other a “bitch” and asked that no one kill their vibe.
I often think of Kendrick’s music as high art — something much more sophisticated and meaningful than 95% of whatever else is coming out these days, hip-hop or otherwise. And while close readings of his songs yield the type of discoverable moments we always hope hip-hop can produce, I’m not as convinced that a cursory listen – or ten – will have a positive effect on the majority of his fans (here I’m outting myself as being included in this group of white, male, heterosexuals).
As “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” progresses, the backup vocals of Anna Wise become increasingly prominent — by the end she is singing the refrain on her own. Perhaps we can interpret her role and the song’s use of the word “bitch” without any of the traditional misogynistic connotations — rather, Kendrick is referring to the music industry and his desire to carve out a space that is entirely his own — or, more generally, to anyone who might get in the way of Kendrick doing his thing. Still, who the word references doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that the Kendrick consistently uses the word as a power play to assert his supremacy — that the referred to subject is “beneath” him or in-the-way of him getting what he wants.
I can hardly listen to “Backstreet Freestyle” anymore without at least lowering the volume on the third verse where Kendrick summons a deeper, growling intonation in what is widely considered a mockery of mainstream radio rappers. Eight times during this verse Kendrick aggressively barks “Beeeeotch!!” It’s an over-the-top criticism of misogyny in rap — one that hardly requires a close reading to understand, and yet, sonically, I feel as though it does nothing to limit the way that the word is used and abused in our culture. In those rare moments when high art reaches mass appeal, the subtext (both intricate and overt) often takes a back seat to the more visceral impact of language and sound — in this case, the sound of Kendrick repeatedly stringing out the word “bitch”.
In “Money Trees” Kendrick coined the irresistibly catchy term “ya bish” which punctuates several lines throughout the track. The spelling of the word was confirmed by Kendrick on Twitter and its use in the song was promptly chastised here and explored/celebrated here. I can’t say whether the term “validate[s] a lot of peoples’ misogynistic urges” or acts as a positive, multifaceted “term of affirmation” — but what I can say only from my personal experiences is that the phrase — and that song — seemed to re-fetishize the word “bitch” amongst my immediate peer group. And this all happened right around the time that I’d been working to purposefully and completely eliminate the word from my vocabulary.
I’m aware that there are varied opinions on the problems associated with using, abusing, or avoiding words that are considered taboo. Some argue that placing a word on a pedestal of offensiveness (i.e. never saying it) only serves to validate the associations that give the word it’s power to offend. Those people might say, “if we all just used the word, it wouldn’t be such a big deal anymore.” The only problem there is that we all do use those words — for many, only in private settings — and they’re still a big deal.
For me, throughout various moments of various classes at Vassar, it became clear the mere utterance of certain words, regardless of context, was disturbing enough to bring out a dramatic and negative effect on others. The fact that these words alone could hurt people was enough for me to at least try to work around using them when I spoke. What surprised me most is that it took just that — purposeful work.
Because of it’s multiple uses and connotations, the word “bitch” has become so entrenched in today’s popular lexicon that it can be difficult to verbally dispose of. It’s ubiquity in our media and entertainment culture seems to be at an all-time high. The word’s comedic associations (“I’m Rick James, bitch!”) and it’s multifaceted lyrical abilities, especially in music and more specifically in hip-hop, have also helped us maintain a complicit attitude toward both its rampant usage and the complicated set of connotations that accompany it.
This is all to say that the word doesn’t have to continue to maintain the levels of pervasiveness in our culture that it currently enjoys. Rather, it would take a collective effort to examine how using the word still allows misogyny to persist in American society. At this moment in time, we’ve got a long way to go — but I think there’s hope if we can at least begin the conversation by acknowledging that there might be deeper problems associated with consuming and/or (un)consciously regurgitating certain words like “bitch”.
And that’s where I have to hope that we can turn to some of our best storytellers and artists to help lead the way. Kendrick is one of the great auteurs of the black/urban/poor experience and his work has been credited with helping to revive the tradition of a declining black blues narrative in America. While braggadocio may be an inexplicable part of hip-hop, using the word “bitch” to validate one’s position of power and influence doesn’t have to be. It might seem like I’m being too hard on Kendrick when he’s already so many miles ahead of everyone else, but the reason I turn toward him is because he’s one of the few artists who has the singular ability to both blow every other rapper out of the water and, at the same time, not use a single demeaning and/or misogynistic term (satirically, or otherwise). It doesn’t sound like much, but there are sadly very few artists who are good enough to change the way people think and speak without using sensational or controversial material — and even fewer who are as in touch with issues like poverty, racism, and gun violence as Kendrick. His obsession with saying “bitch” could just as easily be reversed if he made a concerted effort to continue telling these stories without repeatedly broadcasting a word that many of us still associate with misogyny (especially when coming from the mouth of a man).
That’s also why I’m not as concerned with the dominant channels — rather, exploitation at the baser levels of popular culture (R-rated action movies, mainstream gangsta’ rap, YouTube comment sections, etc) is the mediated manifestation of our collective willingness to consume and accept certain words and their implications. The work that I’m talking about doing would need to first come from those transcendent figures whom we look up to, and then at the grassroots level in people’s communities, at town hall meetings, and at local gathering spots. It might not be fun or comfortable, but if we’re willing to give it a try, it’s the type of work that can push us forward in our relationships and strengthen the social health of our communities.